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Victor Nuovo: For Spinoza, pursuit of Truth is a means to peace and piety

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Posted on August 3, 2017 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s note: This is the 18th in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.

The political outlook of Benedict de Spinoza (1632–77) is much like Hobbes’. This is not surprising, for he schooled himself in Hobbes’ writings and appropriated most of his ideas from them. Yet on one theme in particular, he far exceeded Hobbes — the topic of free inquiry into the nature of things, or as Spinoza described it, the freedom to philosophize and to publish one’s thoughts and discoveries.

Spinoza devoted an entire book to this theme, which he entitled Theological-Political Treatise (published in 1670). In it he makes the remarkable claim that this freedom not only does no harm to domestic tranquility and religion; rather, he asserts that the peace and piety of a society depends entirely on it; they cannot be achieved without it.

It is a remarkable claim and deserves close scrutiny.

Spinoza most likely discovered the seed for this claim when reading Hobbes, which allows me to complete some unfinished business. In chapter 12 of Leviathan, Hobbes explains the origin of religion. He observes that we humans are curious creatures, inquisitive about the causes of things, especially those that may benefit us or cause us harm. From painful experience we also know that these causes most often operate without our knowledge or bidding, and sometimes their effect on us is catastrophic. Accidents happen. 

Ours, then, is an anxious and perpetual curiosity, motivated by fear of what may come, by fear of the unknown. In this anxious state of mind we imagine causes, powerful unnatural forces, which we personalize, hoping that by offering them homage we might gain their favor and insure ourselves against misfortune. Thus arise, in the human imagination, the panoply of Gods, demons, invisible spirits, who are taken to be our guardians or destroyers.

Others among us, who are of an entrepreneurial spirit, enrich themselves by exploiting the anxieties of the multitude; they are the inventors of religious cults or magical rights, over which they claim proprietary rights, and by this means they grow rich and powerful as purveyors of superstition.

But, Hobbes remarks, there is another kind of human curiosity, which is disinterested and impartial; it is a purely intellectual desire to know and that leads the mind to conclude that there is a first cause of existence that is eternal and infinite, and a supreme power of nature that is omnipotent and inexhaustible.

This search is purely philosophical, impartial, disinterested and fearless, and it results in the conclusion that there is a single irresistible power, an ultimate power of nature, which is the source of everything, and which we call God. This is a purely intellectual notion of God, unaccompanied by neither fear nor hope, but seasoned by pure wonder.

I believe that Spinoza pondered over this chapter in Leviathan, and was led by it to the signature idea of his philosophical system: that God and Nature are one and the same, and that this supreme and inexhaustible power of being is not a jealous person, who requires worship or expects gratitude, but the ultimate principle of everything, a rational principle, whose ways can be explored and explained.

In the light of this discovery, we learn that the world was not created for our sakes, that our species is an insignificant and most likely impermanent moment in the realm of being, which is an infinite and evolving nature.

How does this guarantee peace and piety? If we could question him, I believe Spinoza would answer that it is by employing this method of the search for truth that this goal is secured and sustained. The search after truth is an act of pure piety. We honor truth, we respect it, not because it is something we can own, like riches or power that we can use to our advantage, but because truth has no owner. It offers no advantages to anyone. Truth offers only itself, and it is the ultimate judge of all our reasoning and judgments concerning it.

Truth requires of us the purest of motives in our pursuits of it. It is like a great mountain that sternly challenges fearless climbers; it promises no reward but itself. Yet when even a part of it is discovered, it shows itself to be clear and transparent, like the light of the noonday sun. It gladdens the mind. There is no mistaking it as it is not mysterious. It is the very opposite of mystery; it is unending clarity, always enlightening.

This is the sort of piety that is not shaped by any historical faith — all of which Spinoza renounced. Rather, it is pure, unsullied and faultless in fulfilling its promises; it favors no one and is accessible to all.         

Moreover, a society founded on the principle that free rational enquiry shall not be abridged will be free of internal conflict. It will not be plagued by internal conflicts between zealous advocates of rival orthodoxies, whether religious or secular, or by the machinations of predatory demagogues, because every claim to truth will be subject to rational scrutiny, to a calm and dispassionate enquiry by everyone everywhere.

In such a society, Spinoza believed, the search for truth becomes everyone’s right, and this commitment to free inquiry is accompanied and fulfilled by a right and duty of everyone to change their minds whenever they discover their beliefs to be false. They will have learned that nothing trumps truth, that truth is the ultimate standard, and they will honor truth and respect the right of all to seek it.

This is the surest means to peace and piety. I believe Spinoza had it right.

Postscript: For more about Spinoza, see http://www.addisonindependent.com/201608victor-nuovo-spinoza-first-secular-jewish-intellectual.

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